Have you ever heard of someone named Beyoncé Knowles? Is that her name? We just know her as the woman who played Etta James in Cadillac Records. Anyway, Ms. Knowles performed “At Last” at the event of the 2000’s, the Obama Neighborhood Inaugural Ball in 2009; she serenaded the Obamas for their first dance as President and First Lady. It was beautiful. ::tear::
Okay, fine, we do know who Beyoncé is, and we love her, of course, but we digress. The point is, um, helloooooo. Earth to Beyoncé. “At Last” so belongs to Etta James.
At least that’s how the aging Matriarch of the Blues saw things. It was all right with James when Beyoncé portrayed her as a miserable heroin addict in 2008’s Cadillac Records (by all accounts, the gifted and raw singer was a miserable heroin addict through much of the 1960s and 1970s, undergoing a partial recovery in the 80s, only to be hospitalized for an addiction to painkillers in the 2000s); there was miraculously no problem between the two there. Go out in front of the Obamas and sing her song, though? That was a different story entirely. Etta hadn’t been invited to the party, and she was NOT pleased.
James actually threatened to take Beyoncé down, telling B that, even though “he ain’t my president,” she might “get her @$$ kicked” for singing James’s song for the president. Oh. Wow.
As if that weren’t enough, James continued, “I can’t stand Beyoncé. She has no business up there singing (…) my song that I’ve been singing forever.”
Sorry Mom and Dad, but Who’s Etta James Again?
James might have been grandstanding a bit in her attack on Beyoncé (somebody’s jealous…), but her grandstanding might have been excusable: while James was ripping into the 27-year-old singer with a pristine public image, she was on stage—and on tour—at age 71 AND suffering from Alzheimer’s (she was later also diagnosed with leukemia). Born in 1938 and already a recording artist by 1954, James boasted a career of over 50 years, and all the while her voice sounded amazing, emotive, and rough as ever—or according to some, even rougher. The woman had endurance. As one music blogger put it, “Even with a life story that makes Keith Richards' antics seem like child's play, James has outlasted almost all of her fellow soul, blues and rock icons.”
Etta James began making hit songs in the pop genre in the 1950s, moved towards a rock and blues feel with Chess Records in the 1960s, and continued churning out hits and Grammy nominations well into the 1970s. After a career lull in the early 1980s while she was in and out of rehab, she drew attention for her 1989 album Seven Year Itch, her 1993 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, her 2001 induction into the Blues Hall of Fame, and her recognition by the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 and 2003. “She's paid her dues many times over as an R&B and soul pioneer; long may she continue to shock the uninitiated,” wrote Allmusic. While she isn’t around to shock listeners anymore, she made sure that she brought enough drama into the world to keep people talking about her for a long time.
A Force to Be Reckoned With
The uninitiated were probably quite shocked by James’s forceful attack on America’s favorite diva, as Beyoncé seems to be the only pop star around who can do no wrong in the public eye (just about the worst thing anyone ever says about her is that she is overrated). From Beyoncé’s perspective, who would say no to an invite from the President? After the life James has lived, though, it’s hard to fault her for thinking that she should have been invited to sing her signature song, even if she was suffering from dementia.
Ironically, it’s that somewhat troubling roughness in personal life that shines through as distinctively as just about anything in James’ music. She has the integrity of hard life experience behind her, and while that’s no excuse for attacks on fellow singers, it does make for some fiercely rendered soul singing.
Etta James—born Jamesetta Hawkins to a teenaged mother in Los Angeles, California, on January 25, 1938—had a rough life. Her father was rumored to be famous pool player Minnesota Fats, who James never met until she was pushing 50. Her mother was in and out of her life, and James was constantly under the supervision of caregivers. Despite her troubled upbringing, James became involved in making music at a very early age, and she was writing and recording hit songs before she turned 20. (James was also wooing and dating hit recording artists from an early age; she is rumored to have been involved with B.B. King when she was just 16.)
James recorded a number of hits during the 1960s and 1970s, including “At Last,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” and “I’d Rather Go Blind,” but she coped poorly with stardom. She developed a heroin addiction that would plague her for much of her life, and she began to have legal troubles. She married Artis Mills in 1969, but only a few short years later he was sentenced to ten years in prison following a charge of heroin possession. James was also arrested, but she was able to avoid prison by undergoing drug treatment and rehabilitation. The rehab was ineffectual, however, and James was admitted for treatment several more times over the next 35+ years. James later suffered from both Alzheimer’s and leukemia, and by the time of her death on January 20, 2012, she was a mere shell of the bold force of nature that she had still been only three years earlier.
Maybe “force of nature” is an understatement. Just months after the 2009 Beyoncé affair, The New York Times offered up a glowing review of an Etta James show at the B.B. King Blues Club in New York. “She made [“At Last”] hers yet again,” they wrote, “improvising with sultry swoops at the beginning, taut, jazzy hesitations and turns, glimmers of melting tenderness and declarations of crowing pride and relief.” James had earned her place through many unhappy times, they said, describing her singing as “the essence of blues and soul that had been lived in, with lust and heartache, pain and tenacity and spunk, all in a single voice.” Beyoncé will always be lovely (we hope), but the message was clear: step aside, little bee, and try singing “At Last” when you’re 71. An unmatched talent despite decades of pain and rough living, Etta James knew who really ruled the hive.